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Cheat Sheet: Brazilian Country

by Rachel Devitt

Cheat Sheet: Brazilian Country


You may think you don't know what música sertaneja is, but if you have been anywhere near a soccer game, a YouTube account or a Latin radio station in the last year or so, chances are you've heard it. Sertanejo star Michel Teló's "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" was a colossal, globe-trotting, border- and boundary-jumping hit heard round the world that introduced a whole new audience to the thriving world of Brazilian country music.

Teló's runaway success (not to mention his boyish looks) may have made it seem like sertanejo is some hot, young, new thing on the scene, but this isn't the first rodeo for Teló or his genre. Sertanejo began brewing in the countryside of northeastern Brazil in the 1920s. At its inception, the style (also sometimes called música caipira) was a folk genre featuring solo artists or duos singing tales of idyllic rural life and the country man (or caipira), accompanied by the viola caipira. Over the years, the genre went through several evolutions. In the mid-20th century, sertanejo artists began incorporating bits of Mexican mariachi and ranchera, samba and polkas, as well as instruments like the harp and the accordion (which would become a staple). Duos like Irmãs Galvão and solo acts like Tião Carreiro began earning stardom outside the genre's rural domain.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, música sertaneja really hit its stride. Increasing radio and TV promotion made massive stars of artists like Sergio Reis and Bruno & Marrone, while artists like Chitãozinho & Xororó and Leandro e Leonardo helped develop a new, pop-friendly, ballad-heavy style called "romantic sertanejo." At the same time, another sect (including artists like Ivan Vilela) pursued something rootsier, resisting commercialization with a focus on the classic caipira sound.

By the early 2000s, the genre was so popular that it had nowhere else to go but pop. And thus was born sertanejo universitário, the industry-driven, mainstream-friendly, youth-oriented version of the genre that sometimes (though not always) replaces the familiar accordions and acoustics with synthesizers and electric guitars. Meanwhile, others continue to explore the genre's less commercial roots, developing a style called "moda de viola." But the division between the two isn't as fixed as it sounds: "Ai Se Eu Te Pego," for instance, is a shining star in sertanejo universitário, but Teló (an accordion player) got his start with rootsier outfits like Grupo Tradiçao. And some of sertanejo's most internationally successful crossover stars, such as Paula Fernandes, Gusttavo Lima and Maria Cecilia, often play heavily acoustic jam sessions with older, more traditional stars (see the intimate Um barzinho albums).

Internationally speaking, sertanejo might just be the next big thing -- or at least the driving force behind some of the world's most exciting new stars. Clearly, the decades-old genre is no mere flash in the pop music pan. But don't take our word for it: Just listen to the legions of screaming fans, singing along to every word on the live albums (culled from live performance videos) that are so popular among sertanejo artists. Start digging into the rich, varied history of this massively popular Brazilian country music with our Cheat Sheet.

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